Politics in the Movies: Films That Channel Politics, Power, and Presidents

This year has brought Americans a political season that has often seemed like a combination of a reality show and a horror movie. We’ll see if the election will have a happy ending.

In the meantime, here are some political films that are well worth a watch.

True Stories

Lincoln

Political intrigue makes for excellent drama, with true stories and famous figures offering the kind of content Academy Awards are made for.

Daniel Day-Lewis won his third Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film, Lincoln. Day-Lewis’ interpretation of Abraham Lincoln is a masterclass of method acting, and screenwriter Tony Kushner provides in a fascinating adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals. A more contemporary, but equally gripping biopic, is Gus Van Sant’s Milk. The 2008 film earned Sean Penn an Oscar for his unforgettable turn as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California.

Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, is as powerful today as it was in 1976, just two years after the Washington Post reporters’ work exposed criminal activity in the White House and forced President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Hal Holbrook is unforgettable as the secretive “Deep Throat,” Woodward’s deep background source who was revealed to Mark Felt, a high-ranking FBI official who spent his retirement in Santa Rosa until his death in 2008.

Richard Nixon has been the subject of two excellent dramas — Oliver Stone’s Nixon let Anthony Hopkins chew the scenery all the way to the 37th president’s Shakespearean downfall, while Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon saw Frank Langella playing Nixon post-retirement. Hopkins and Langella each earned an Oscar nomination for their work.

Other worthwhile political dramas include The Front Runner, starring Hugh Jackman as Senator Gary Hart and Charlie Wilson’s War, featuring Tom Hanks as the titular Texas Congressman, who led clandestine efforts to support the Afghan Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War. Hanks also stars as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in Spielberg’s The Post, which serves as an effective prequel to All the President’s Men.

Comedy and Satire

Dr. Strangelove

Political storytelling can be effective when filmmakers take a less serious approach —check out these classic comedies and razor-sharp satires that lampoon the power and process of politics.

Hal Ashby’s 1979 classic Being There provided Peter Sellers with one of his best late-career roles as a simple-minded, TV-watching gardener who becomes the advisor to the First Lady. Sellers previously played the US President — as well as a British soldier and a German nuclear weapons madman — in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a dark comedy that seems just as daring today as it did in 1964. Especially that bombastic ending.

On a smaller scale, Alexander Payne’s Election skewers corruption and opportunism in its hilarious look at a high school election in middle America. Reese Witherspoon is dynamite as ambitious student Tracy Flick, and Matthew Broderick excels as her foil, a burned out teacher who can’t stand Flick’s chipper optimism. Similarly, Michael Ritchie’s brilliant 1975 comedy Smile examines the effects a teen beauty pageant in Santa Rosa has throughout suburban communities. Ritchie’s 1972 film The Candidate is another gem, featuring Robert Redford as a US Senate candidate from California who shakes up the race against a seemingly insurmountable opponent.

Finally, Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog is a late 1990s gem about the power players around a sitting president who cover up the Commander-in-Chief’s sex scandal by creating an international conflict just before an election. Robert De Niro is chilling as a political spin-doctor and Dustin Hoffman is hilarious as a vain Hollywood producer who helps stage the conflict overseas.

Conspiracy Theories

The Manchurian Candidate

Finally, some of the most entertaining movies about politics involve worst-case what-if scenarios about diabolical conspirators, sometimes with a supernatural element.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is one of the great Red Scare movies of the atomic age, with alien pods taking over otherwise nice people in the neighborhood. Phil Kaufmann’s 1978 remake is equally chilling. David Cronenberg’s 1983 film The Dead Zone is one of the best-ever Stephen King adaptations, featuring Christopher Walken as a man with psychic powers who foresees an inevitable apocalypse should Martin Sheen become president.

Elia Kazan’s 1957 effort, A Face in the Crowd, features a terrifying Andy Griffith as a populist entertainer who uses the media to rise to power — the film is particularly chilling in the Trump era. The corporate overlord villains in Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View (1973) remain just offscreen, greasing the works behind seemingly every event in the US government, as reporter Warren Beatty investigates. And conspiracy thrillers don’t get creepier than the 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate, in which a former prisoner of war is brainwashed and later used as a pawn in the U.S. government — something that could only happen in the movies. Right?


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